Efforts to manage a national health crisis will be getting a little help from an unlikely source – a fast food restaurant chain.

Kentucky Fried Chicken—the largest chicken-on-the-bone quick service restaurant in the U.S.—has committed to phasing out chicken raised with antibiotics important to human medicine in its U.S. stores by the end of 2018. The announcement follows a national call to action  launched by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) nearly a year ago that urged the company to improve its antibiotics policies.

Why it matters

More than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the United States are sold for use on livestock and poultry. More than 96 percent of those drugs are routinely distributed en masse in feed or water—often to animals that are not sick, to speed up growth and help animals survive crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial farms.

This practice contributes to the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections in humans. Leading medical experts warn that we must stop overuse of antibiotics in human medicine and animal agriculture, or else the life-saving drugs we rely on to treat common infections and enable medical procedures could increasingly stop working.

Conservatively, at least 2 million Americans are already infected with antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and at least 23,000 die as a direct result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A “game-changer”

“KFC’s new policy will be a game-changer for the fast food industry and public health,” said Lena Brook, food policy advocate at NRDC. “While federal antibiotics policy stagnates, the market is responding to consumer demand for better meat. This commitment from the nation’s most iconic fast food chicken chain will have a major impact on the way the birds are raised in the U.S. and in the fight against the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections.”

KFC’s action will have wide-reaching impacts that go beyond their massive purchasing power. That’s because the company only purchases a portion of the chickens from any given flock, due to standards for the birds they buy. This means KFC’s change in policy will affect a larger number of chickens than the company purchases itself.

How the change happened

Tapping into widespread consumer demand for meat raised without antibiotics, NRDC and allied groups-- U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Food Animals Concern Trust, Center for Science in the Public Interest and Consumers Union—have been calling on the company to update their antibiotics policy.

This included delivering more than 350,000 petitions to the chicken giant last summer. NRDC staff also addressed leader of KFC parent company Yum! Brands at its shareholder meeting last spring. And KFC has been profiled in the annual “Chain Reaction” antibiotics scorecard published by NRDC and other advocacy groups, grading top restaurant chains on their antibiotics policies.

With KFC’s announcement, 11 out of the top 15 chains in the U.S. have now committed to some level of responsible antibiotics use for their chicken supplies. NRDC estimates that more than 40 percent of the U.S. chicken industry is now either under an antibiotics stewardship commitment or is already using responsible practices, according to published statements and data from the WattPoultryUSA 2017 Survey. KFC’s new policy will likely move this percentage even higher.

KFC reports they will require their suppliers to work with the USDA Process Verified Program to ensure that production practices comply with the company’s commitments.